The U.S.-Japan “World Series” Needs To Happen Now

Putting the United States and Japan’s best ballplayers in a yearly head-to-head battle for bragging rights? Yes, please.

Left: Getty / Christian Petersen; right: Reuters / Toru Hanai

There’s a slight tendency to, shall we say, overthink new and interesting things in sports. Trade proposals, managements changes, starting jobs — everything comes under strict scrutiny these days. But some ideas seem right from the get-go. Major League Baseball’s champion in an annual tournament against Japan’s own championship-winning team? A no-brainer. Money in the bank. Just tell me where to sign. Book it. Period.

Yes, according to the Chicago Tribune, MLB commissioner Bud Selig is all but predicting that a U.S.-Japan series will come to fruition before too long:

“Someday you will get the United States versus Japan, a real World Series,” the 78-year-old Selig said. “It’s a long way off, but yes, I really believe it. That’s the final goal. … The thought of having a real World Series, and the interest in the world, is breathtaking to me.”

The New York Times was a tad more sobering in its assessment of Selig’s comments — and he did say he “would probably not live to see” such a tournament. Nonetheless, the seed is there in the soil. The ratings success of the World Baseball Classic, which concludes next Tuesday in San Francisco, proves there’s an appetite for this style of international competition. It would be a groundbreaking first in a sports world obsessed with monetizing globalization: the NFL and NBA don’t have anything resembling such a proposal, and even soccer’s epic Champions League only covers Europe. Hockey has annual tournaments only on the junior scale. There are Olympic competitions and the World Cup, of course, but those are between national teams, not individual franchises. From the perspective of an American (and presumably Japanese) audience, a true “World” Series between these respective baseball champs would be unprecedented fun.

Of course, you can’t just snap your fingers and execute such an event, or else I would’ve done it (and I’m not even that good of a snapper).

Before David Wright could catch this ball, Fred Wilpon took it and invested it with Bernie Madoff. Andrew Innerarity / Reuters

As noted by former MLB manager Bobby Valentine, who has spent a collective seven years managing in Japan, a best-of-seven series that involves trans-Pacific flight is wholly unfeasible. Fair enough, so you do the tournament Ryder Cup-style. One year it’s at the Tokyo Dome, the next it’s at some pre-determined MLB stadium. Or there’s a single change of venue in the middle of the series, like the historic 1972 Canada-Russia hockey showdown.

By far, though, the biggest obstacle to giving such a competition the enduring credibility it’ll need to survive is making sure that each team’s top talent commits to the series. Injuries may have a funny of surfacing without warning, and there would be very little advance notice for the participating teams, but the series will only works as much as the selected teams take it seriously. In the World Baseball Classic, Team USA has nowhere near the potency and pop that it could, since many of its best eligible players (like Mike Trout, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, and so forth) opted to stay with their clubs in spring training. The excitement in the stadiums — the incessant cowbell, the eardrum-tickling horns — comes from fans of Puerto Rico, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and others. But if a World Series-winning team competes in full, it will sell to American fans. To that end, you’ll have to make it worth each team’s time. Each league could pool its resources — fueled by advertising and TV dollars — to throw in $100,000 for each winning player and $50,000 for each loser. (Players from last season’s World Series winner and loser received about $377,000 and $274,000 each, respectively, so such a gesture wouldn’t be nearly as extravagant.)

The entire thing would, of course, have to be negotiated and written into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires after the 2016 season, so MLB has four years to start appealing to their players’ sense of patriotic pride. Such an approach, you’d think, would be futile against a group of millionaires many times over, but USA Basketball rebounded from an embarrassing bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics by playing up the prestige factor of representing the country (and in private conversations, one imagines, playing up the global-appeal angle to brand-conscious stars). When a burden turns into a privilege, people’s attitudes have a way of evolving.

Left: AP / Koji Sasahara; right: David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald / MCT

Seeing as how this is Bud Selig’s brainchild, the idea doesn’t have a great chance of succeeding, least of all because he’s only got two more full seasons on the job to see it approved. Sure, he’s managed to bring about prolonged labor peace and institute a drug-testing program with some teeth, but progressive initiatives (see: replay, sweeping instant) have not been his forte.

But if the baseball powers that be can actually come to some kind of resolution in favor of a true “World” Series, everybody wins. The players gain a bit more prestige and money, fans from the world’s two most baseball-mad countries get another chance to see their best at play, and the sport gains the kind of increased global exposure that the NBA and NFL already take for granted. TV audiences in Japan are breaking all sorts of records during this WBC, and motivation on the Japanese side to prove it can compete with America’s champs would likely be immense. There’s no doubt that the best ballplayers in the world play in MLB, but a dedicated team of pros from Japan would have a puncher’s chance of winning any given series, especially given their shorter (and, therefore, not as tiring) regular-season schedule. Plus, the talent pool is consistently churning out top players like Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish and 18-year-old Shohei Otani, who may be stateside before long. And with recent changes to the ball used in Japan’s professional league, we’re getting a clearer sense than ever before as to how the leagues compare talent-wise. (Spoiler alert: It’s closer than you might think.)

For more than 100 years, our “World Series” has been dogged by inherently misleading semantics. It’s past time MLB made such a thing a reality.

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